Bahrain: Foreign Minister glosses over rights record at UN General Assembly

27 September 2016 – Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa delivered a statement yesterday on behalf of the Kingdom of Bahrain at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly. The undersigned NGOs condemn the Foreign Minister’s misleading and unconstructive remarks as the Bahraini government continues its campaign to conceal its human rights violations from the international community.

Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa, who has publicly undermined the authority of both the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and the High Commissioner of Human Rights himself, used his platform to outline the government’s perceived commitment to human rights. He highlighted the country’s achievements in regards to women’s rights and the kingdom’s role in establishing security and stability in the region. However, he failed to address the widespread human rights violations carried out by Bahraini authorities, which have led to an extremely tense political situation that promotes the exact opposite of “stability.”

The Foreign Minister was quick to point to the achievements of Bahraini women at the international level, such as their appointment to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the Executive Board of UN Women. While the success of Bahraini women should not be discounted, the Foreign Minister failed to provide a full picture of Bahrain’s record on women’s rights, specifically how it has targeted women human rights defenders and instituted new restrictions on women’s participation in the hajj. Most recently, Bahraini authorities arrested and imprisoned activist and founder of the Women’s Petition Committee, Ghada Jamsheer, as she returned to Bahrain. The pending charges against her are all related to Jamsheer’s activism, such as her online criticism of the government and her work on corruption.

Additionally, it was only in March of this year that Bahraini authorities arrested and imprisoned human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja with her infant son. After two months of heavy international pressure, the authorities released al-Khawaja. However, due to threats and pressure from the Bahraini government, she Zainab left Bahrain and now lives in exile in Denmark. Her sister, Maryam Al-Khawaja, is another prominent human rights defender who also lives in exile in Denmark. Maryam Al-Khawaja  is at risk of imprisonment, should she return to Bahrain.

“Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa wants to discuss Bahrain’s ‘stability’ and the achievements of Bahraini women on the international stage but fails to address the government’s constant targeting of female human rights defenders,” stated Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). “He should also be addressing the destabilizing effects of discrimination and punitive travel bans, many of which target women human rights defenders and prevent them from engaging with international bodies, such as the Human Rights Council.”

The Foreign Minister went on to state that the “wellbeing, happiness and stability of our citizens are the main pillars of development in all fields.” Yet it remains completely unclear how the recently intensified campaignagainst civil society contributes to the happiness and stability of Bahraini citizens. Repression has reached such heights that five UN Special Procedures issued a joint statement calling on the Bahraini authorities to halt their “persecution” of the country’s marginalized Shia majority. A recent US Department of State reporton Bahrain as well as the opening remarks of the High Commissioner for Human Rights countered his baseless claim of guaranteed constitutional rights to all citizens. Foreign governments, international bodies, and independent NGOs have all called attention to widespread use of arbitrary detentions, arrests, torture, and due process violations in the country.

The Foreign Minister discussed Bahrain’s national path to prosperity and advancement, but declined to mention how the government has actively suppressed the development of a free, independent civil society. Bahrain’s courts recently upheld a ruling to dissolve the largest political opposition bloc, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, continues to enforce legislation that criminalizes dissent, and routinely imprisons human rights defenders like Bahrain Center for Human Rights president Nabeel Rajab. Nabeel Rajab faces up to 15 years in prison on 6 October on charges related to his freedom of expression. Authorities brought new charges against him after he wrote a letter to the New York Times. For activists, independent political leaders, and critics of the government, there is no national path to progress.

“This is just more empty rhetoric from the Bahraini government,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD).  Bahrain’s authoritarian actions more accurately illustrate where they stand on human rights. For those who disagde with the government, the only ‘national path’ that exists is to prison.”

The speech also alluded to the importance of stability and security of society at large. Again, the Foreign Minister omitted the fact that Bahraini authorities themselves use hate speech to discredit political opposition and stoke societal division. Authorities not only tolerate hate speech against the Shia population, but they use it as a political tool to quell cross-sectarian participation in pro-democracy movements. These tactics defy the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendation to prevent sectarianism and integrate the country’s security forces. Indeed, despite its declarations, the government has failed to implement the vast majority of the BICI’s 26 recommendations. A November 2015 study by ADHRB, BIRD and BCHR found Bahrain had only fully implemented just two recommendations, with eight key recommendations completely unimplemented.

We find the Foreign Minister’s attempt to whitewash these crimes against Bahrain’s citizens deplorable. We call on the international community to hold the Government of Bahrain accountable for its systemic human rights violations:

  • Call for the release of Nabeel Rajab and the dropping of all charges against him, and for the release of all prisoners of conscience and persons detained for their free expression.
  • Call and act for the reversal of Al Wefaq’s dissolution.
  • Suspend sales of arms and investment into Bahrain until the Governments meets and implements all BICI recommendations.

Signed,

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)

Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD)

European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR)

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